Why figureheads are naked women and cats good news
Dave Cochrane, founder of FindaFishingBoat.com, explains sacred seafaring superstitions
EVERY profession has its superstitions, traditional customs and strange beliefs but mariners – specifically fishermen – have more than their fair share.
Most are associated with bad luck and are portentous of ominous weather, tragedy or poor fishing. From the notion of women on board being a distraction, to whistling on the bridge inciting a storm, there are dozens of ways in which misfortune can be wrought upon a vessel or voyage ... if you believe in that kind of thing.
Strange as it may seem, a lot of these customs are still observed even in the modern-day marine age. Of course, most sailors and seamen today know that these beliefs are all bogus but they can still pervade the daily lives of those who take to the sea.
Whether these myths are a romanticised hangover from another era or based in some foundation of fact, we look at the history of some traditional folklore that still exists today.
Friday is considered an unlucky in many walks of life and remains prevalent even in today’s modern seafaring world. Though most commercial vessels wouldn’t delay a voyage that was due to start on a Friday, there are still plenty of fishermen who prefer to stay on dry land at the end of a week.
The belief is thought to be linked to the fact that Christ was crucified on a Friday and voyages destined to leave for sea would have an unlucky trip. In the same vein, Sundays are a good day to set sail as Jesus was resurrected on the Sabbath.
Just like the theatre, certain words have been known to be banned on board any vessel. From the early days of shipping, wishing anyone ‘good luck’ or merely saying ‘goodbye’ were thought to bring misfortune on the crew.
Speaking of goodbyes, it was considered bad luck to watch a vessel until it was out of sight as all on board would be drowned – which is another one for the banned list. The word ‘drowned’ was also thought to have been forbidden for fear of tempting fate.
If the words ‘good luck’ were uttered on board a boat, then the only way to reverse the ‘curse’ was to punch someone (usually the person who’d said it) and draw blood.
Cats and the sea
The humble cat has links to many superstitions and probably dates to Ancient Egyptian times when cats were revered creatures. As the species were domesticated across Europe they became the unofficial guardians of the home. This association with security and safety is the origin of most superstitions relating to cats.
In the nautical world, cats feature a lot and particularly with fishermen. Any fishermen heading off to sea would be only too pleased to attract the attention of a cat; one that purrs before a launch is said to bring a bountiful haul as will one that rubs itself against the ankles of the crew. The reasoning being a sound one: cats can smell the fish a mile away.
The infamous black cat was thought to be a good omen if it ventured on board a vessel of its own free will. However, the cat that licks its fur the wrong way has been blamed for causing storms.
The association between the sea and cats can also be found in the way sailors refer to the water with ‘cat’s paws’ being a term for the small ripples on the ocean’s surface and ‘cat’s skin’ referring to a big disturbance in the sea.
Naming a ship even today is a big deal and often has something of the ceremonial about it, even if it isn’t the QE2.
The tradition of blessing a ship to bestow good luck upon all who sail in it goes back thousands of years. Evidence has shown that the Babylonians in around 3000 BC were performing naming rites on their vessels and even sacrificing cattle as part of the ceremony.
The Vikings continued in this vein with the spilling of blood as an offering to the Norse gods. Though the blood has been replaced by wine (or a bottle of Champagne) we still perform celebratory rites when christening a vessel today.
A part of the cultural tradition demands that a woman performs the baptism as a way of ensuring prosperity and good luck for the vessel.
Women and bad luck
Given the fact that a woman’s touch was deemed to be good luck during a naming ceremony for a boat, why, then, was having a woman on board considered to be bad luck?
Sadly, there’s no fantastical yarn about this one – it’s simply a case of distraction. Until recent times, the marine industry was a male-domi- nated one and a crew of men at sea would no doubt have been driven to distraction by the presence of a female among their ranks.
That’s not to say that it never happened: the infamous Mary-Ann Talbot served alongside her guardian, Captain Bowen, as a drummer, concealed in men’s clothing in the late 18th century. After Bowen was killed in battle, Talbot worked on board several vessels without incident.
There are, of course, many tales of successful female pirates throughout history, including Anne Bonny, Grace O’Malley and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew.
Interestingly, the enduringly charming curse, ‘ son of a gun’ is derived from the activities of sailors who failed to stay focused on their activities. The practice of consummating an affair on board was often done so on the gun deck, sometimes resulting in a child born out of wedlock – the son of a gun. And it wasn’t just females of our own species that were purported to have a distracting effect on history’s mariners. Mermaids were also renowned for luring vulnerable sailors to their doom.
Contrarily, seafaring folk believed that nude women were actually a calming influence on the sea which is why so many figureheads on old sailing ships are of naked women.
Customs and traditions pervaded all areas of sea life and things such as dropping a cake of ice overboard would ensure a big catch. Spitting into the mouth of the first fish you catch was also believed to improve the haul of the day. But, speaking of spitting, it was generally held to be true that letting the skipper spit into the water ahead of him would drive the fish away.
Bananas on board
Weird as it may sound, bananas were thought to be terrible bad luck for a vessel.
The superstition resulted from observations that vessels carrying bananas as cargo befell some strange and unusual fates. Some ships simply disappeared while others suffered outbreaks of mysterious illnesses among the crew resulting in sickness and sometimes death.
There is evidence to suggest that the rapidly decaying fruit which gives off ethylene oxide could have accounted for this. Another theory is that the bunches of exotic fruit bound from South America and the West Indies to Europe could have contained poisonous spiders.
Whatever the cause and whether it was associated with just those ships carrying bananas is irrelevant – the fruit quickly became a bad omen to have on board.
Influencing the weather
The popular phrase, ‘whistling up a storm’, derived from the commonly held belief that whistling while on the bridge would result in the onset of strong winds. Clapping, too, could also be blamed for inciting lighting and thunder, and throwing a penny overboard would bring a favourable wind.
Dave Cochrane has more than 35 years’ experience in the fishing industry having worked as a skipper and commercial fisherman since 1980, owning a boat and running his own crew fishing for prawns and scallops. He then retrained as a paramedic and enjoyed 12 years working with the ambulance service every second week in Strontian, western Lochaber, where he and his wife, Eileen, live. Still a keen fisherman, Dave continued to head out to sea in the weeks he was off work and the decision to buy himself a new boat resulted in the birth of FindaFishingBoat.com 19 years ago.
The only way to reverse a curse was to punch someone.
A fishing boat works the waters off the island of Eigg but her crew might be ultra superstitious.